Is the issue of race something a Gospel-centered church should deal with? Simply put: Yes! The Gospel deals with racial reconciliation through Gospel reconciliation.
But how do we get there? And why is it necessary?
If we start at the beginning of the Bible — particularly in Genesis 12 — we read of God’s calling of Abraham. He was to leave his country (Gen. 12:1), be blessed and bless (12:2), even to bless all the families of the earth (12:3). Here, in the early chapters of God’s promised plan of redemption, we see the intention of God to spread this blessing beyond one family and one nation. That is, God’s promise to Abraham (and his descendants) has a multi-ethnic goal.
Now, if you jump ahead to the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, you have a vision of the realization of this promise:
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10)
In the beginning you have the promise that God will bless a great multitude from the nations. Then, at the end, we see the realization that it has in fact happened. There, gathered around the throne of Christ Jesus, is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial army of blood-bought saints. Jesus, in his doing and dying, purchased people from every tribe and language and people and nation. This what Jesus did in the Gospel.
Now how does this promise (of Gen. 12) become realized (Rev. 5)? Jesus, the resurrected King, dispatches his people to be attachés of his gospel.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Let’s bring this all together. God designs to bless and unite the nations through the gospel of his beloved Son. Therefore, Christ invaded earth, accomplishing redemption for people from every nation. Once the mission was completed, he commissioned his followers to go and make disciples of every nation. In other words, go bring the good news to the nations, the people for whom Christ died.
One of the implications of the Gospel is uniting people from different races. The church is to be that embassy of heaven on earth where kingdom thinking and living dominate. Far from being a topic that churches didn’t talk about, race was something that faithful, Gospel-centered churches in the Apostle Paul’s day were forced to talk about.
He had to work to communicate Gospel-unity as well as preserve it. This he did by showing that the new identity in Christ is actually more significant than earthly identities based on race or nation. This he brilliantly did without minimizing the beauty of culture. He simply raised the Gospel flag higher than all others. It is not that race and ethnicity go away, they just no longer serve as the basis of identity.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal. 3.27-29)
With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call. (Eph. 4.2-4)
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col. 3.11)
I am not saying that racial diversity is the barometer of Gospel-centeredness. What I am saying is that a Gospel-centered church should be working to see the Gospel advance. This must mean not hindering, but helping its traction among different races. If your church is in an ethnically diverse area, it should aim to love, serve and reach people in the community. If your church is not in a multi-cultural area, then it means creatively planning and intentionally working to see the Gospel advance via church planting and missions.
One quick personal story. At Emmaus, we are a relatively young and small church plant. We are also a predominately Caucasian congregation. We recently moved into a building in a historic area of Omaha that is also very ethnic. One comment that I heard multiple times from our members was how the Gospel made things uncomfortable for them. They did not say that this new neighborhood or different cultures made them uncomfortable, but that the Gospel did.
What did they mean? They meant that as they digested the Gospel and its implications, they discovered that there was some tension there in terms of the way they saw people. When they connected the dots in terms of mission, family and the design of Christ’s work, then they began to have tension. They needed to be calibrated by the Gospel to see who Christ died for and the church he is building. Seeing this moves us from being uncomfortable to liberated and motivated by the gospel.
Before we can open up our eyes and see the world and people around us, we need to have our eyes opened up to see the design of the atonement. What was Jesus going after? Revelation 5 has the answer. Churches that are Gospel-centered will by necessity have their eyes open to the issue of race, and intentionally work to see the Gospel advance on God’s tracks, not our own.